U.S. prosecutors in Manhattan are planning to return to Cambodia a 10th-century Khmer sandstone statue said to have been plundered more than 20 years ago from a temple there.
In a complaint filed on Thursday in Federal District Court in Manhattan, the prosecutors described how the statue was stolen by a former member of the Khmer Rouge, then wound up in the hands of an art collector who traversed Cambodia’s war-ravaged jungles in the 1970s and was later accused of smuggling stolen relics.
The statue was taken in 1997 from a temple called Prasat Krachap, at Koh Ker, which was the capital of the ancient Khmer Empire from 928 to 944 A.D., the complaint said.
An unnamed person who inherited the statue, which depicts the Hindu deity Skanda riding a peacock, has voluntarily relinquished any claim to it, said the complaint, which seeks a “forfeiture of all right, title and interest” in the item.
Audrey Strauss, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, said in a statement that the sculpture, “Skanda on a Peacock,” is of “great historical, religious and artistic significance to the people of Cambodia.” She added: “We reaffirm our commitment to ending the sale of illegally trafficked antiquities in the United States.”
The theft, the complaint says, was carried out by a Cambodian national identified only as Looter-1, who joined the Khmer Rouge at the age of about 10. By the 1990s, Looter-1 was leading a group of some 450 people who stole artifacts from temples and archaeological sites, according to the complaint.
One evening in 1997, Looter-1 and another person found the statue in the antechamber of Prasat Krachap, prosecutors said. They then transported it to a house near the border of Thailand, the complaint added.
Last year, the complaint said, Looter-1 showed archaeologists where the statue had been discovered. More recently, according to the complaint, a second person met with representatives of Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and acknowledged taking part in the plundering of Prasat Krachap and selling sculptures to people including the collector Douglas A.J. Latchford, who lived in Bangkok.
Latchford, who was also known as Pakpong Kriangsak, had maintained that Westerners who acquired Southeast Asian objects during the decades of war in Cambodia and Vietnam should be seen as rescuers of objects that might have been lost to the jungle or destroyed. He donated artifacts and money to the national museum in Phnom Penh and in 2008 was honored with Cambodia’s equivalent of a knighthood.
But in 2019, a grand jury in Manhattan indicted Latchford on charges including smuggling and conspiracy related to a scheme to sell looted Cambodian antiquities. Latchford had been comatose and unable to rebut the allegations, said a legal adviser to him. That indictment was dismissed after Latchford died last year.
(Latchford’s daughter has since said that she was turning over her father’s holdings of Khmer antiquities, valued by some at more than $50 million, to Cambodia.)
Around April 2000, the complaint said, Latchford sold “Skanda on a Peacock” to an unidentified buyer for $1.5 million and shipped it from Singapore to London. Later, the statue was brought to New York. After being contacted by the federal authorities, the unnamed heir agreed to give up possession of it, prosecutors said.
The statue is now in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security, awaiting what Strauss, the U.S. attorney, called a return to “its rightful home.”